Leaders and members of the AFT have spent the past year having blunt, tough, uncomfortable, but courageous conversations about how to address the lingering effects of racism and inequity in our nation—especially related to black males. As a result of those conversations, the AFT on Oct. 9 became the first public sector union in modern history to issue a substantive, action-oriented report on achieving racial equity in America.
The report, "Reclaiming the Promise of Racial Equity: In Education, Economics and Our Criminal Justice System," provides a framework for the development of policy in national and state legislation, at the school board level and inside the AFT itself. As the AFT approaches its 100th year, this report serves as a capstone to a legacy of fighting for democracy and championing fairness and economic opportunity for all.
"I have been humbled and heartened by the overwhelming response from leaders and members around the country who participated in these courageous conversations," said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, who chairs the AFT's Racial Equity Task Force. "I am proud that the AFT is the first union in the labor movement to address the crisis facing black males in a significant way. And for this work to continue, it will take the effort of all our members, including our white brothers and sisters, and the entire labor movement coming together."
Members of the task force shared their experience hammering out the report with the AFT executive council just before the council unanimously approved it—with a standing ovation. They described the raw emotion they felt as disheartening statistics about discrimination became deeply personal, and member after member described instances of indignity and discrimination—being followed in a store simply because they were black, or watching as worried white women crossed the street to avoid them. Many white task force members had never imagined the reality of discrimination in quite so much detail, or heard about it in such a relatable, personal way. And many were uncomfortable confronting the truth.
"It is not easy, I'm sure, for a white person to sit among black folks and hear about the indignities to which we have been subjected," said Keith Johnson, an executive board member of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, an AFT vice president and a member of the task force. "It is not easy to hear that people that look like you were the ones responsible for perpetrating some of those injustices."
Jeff Grider, executive vice president of the Portland Community College Federation of Classified Employees, a campus security officer and a white man, embraced that struggle. Just as the sexual assault prevention movement focuses not just on women taking action to stay safe but on men taking action to stop assaulting them in the first place, the racial equity movement must both help victims and stop perpetrators, he said. "My challenge as a white person is to teach other white people how not to be racist," said Grider.
The degree of injustice moved every committee member, regardless of race. "It was staggering to me to read that one-third of the black men in America will go to jail," said Jerry Jordan, who is black, a task force member, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and an AFT vice president. "One-third! Look to your left, look to your right. One of us is going to jail. That has to stop."
Shelvy Abrams, also an AFT vice president, an executive committee member of the United Federation of Teachers and a task force member, described seeing members of the Ku Klux Klan parade through her town when she was 4 or 5 years old, targeting her family and others. Her mother told her "never to hate," so she suppressed her anger for years, pushing aside the everyday slights she would experience as a black woman. The AFT changed that. "When we had that task force, I was able to say, 'OK, let it go,'" she said. "Now is the time to speak up for my rights."
Several members underscored the importance of including white people on the task force, amplifying voices of color in a way that reaches more people outside the movement. AFT President Randi Weingarten emphasized that message, describing her decision to protest the death of an unarmed black man in New York. "I knew it was going to make a statement if white Jews got arrested for Eric Garner's death," she told the executive committee. But also important is the personal revelation that can happen when white people reflect on race. "It's uncomfortable to look at our own complicity," said Weingarten. "How many times did I cross the street because I was afraid of some hooded men? ... We have actually lived our privilege without even knowing it."
In a press release, Weingarten focused on moving forward. "This report offers concrete steps to create schools where parents want to send their children, where students—particularly boys of color—are engaged, and where educators want to work," she said. "We must do everything in our power to make sure that black lives matter in every classroom, on every street and in every court in America. This report is a step in transforming our country for the better and in using this moment to start transforming ourselves."
AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker called the report "the grounding for the work we do in our classrooms and workplaces to better meet the needs of African-American students, their families and the community at large," adding that it could be "the launching pad for our advocacy and fight forward to defend the rights of all working Americans, including women, people of color, the disabled, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community."
The report highlights a number of recommendations that the AFT hopes to implement in partnership with its state and local affiliates, including to:
- Fund programs that provide alternatives to out-of-school suspensions and offer meaningful educational opportunities for black male students.
- Ensure that all schools are safe and welcoming spaces for students and educators by replacing zero-tolerance policies with restorative justice and fairer enforcement.
- Develop and implement programs to intentionally help identify, recruit, develop and retain black male educators and staff.
- Provide professional development and cultural competency training that helps teachers and other school staff understand their own personal biases.
- Create review processes in schools to ensure that black male students are treated fairly.
- Develop funding strategies, mentoring and counseling to create greater opportunity for black males to attend college.
- Establish partnerships with trade unions to develop apprenticeship programs that provide job training and placement in trade careers that open the door to economic opportunity and independence for black men.
- Continue and expand its work with the Conferences of Chief Justices to help establish engagement strategies to bridge the gap between minority and low-income communities and court leadership through collaborative efforts that will increase public trust and confidence in the states' courts.
The report will be taken up at regional meetings this fall, where the task force hopes specific actions will move the union, and the nation, toward greater racial equity. To get involved and learn what you can do to move the issue forward, contact Regena Thomas in the AFT's human rights and community relations department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Virginia Myers, AFT press release]